Do Sailboats Have Motors?

Do Sailboats Have Motors? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Beth York

June 15, 2022

Do sailboats have motors? That is a really great question! It's a bit of a complicated question as the answer varies from boat to boat. The size, intended use, and age of the vessel all have to be taken into consideration. Also, to successfully handle a cruising sailboat with no motor aboard, a great deal of boating experience is necessary. On many sailboats it can be nearly impossible to tell if it has a motor from the outside, as long as it is in the water.

Cruising sailboats will almost always have a motor of some sort. Coastal cruisers and blue water boats will generally have an inboard engine, while smaller day trip sailboats may only have an outboard motor. Dinghy sailboats generally only utilize wind propulsion, as well as sailboats whose owners prefer to go motorless.

Sailboats have been around for thousands of years and only recently has it become standard for them to have engines. Small sailboats such as a Hobbie Cat or Sunfish do not have a motor. They are generally propelled solely by the wind. However as boats grow in size the necessity of a motor becomes clear for most sailors. Exiting a slip on sail power alone can be quite a challenge, so an oar is utilized for the task.  While not essential, a motor is very handy to have in tight anchorages and harbors.

My sailboat has an inboard Yanmar engine. It is a small, simple, 15 horsepower engine that pushes my sailboat where I need it to go on windless days. I'm very thankful for our engine as we would be unable to travel consistently without it. Sails won't move a boat without wind and I travel the ICW regularly so traffic and currents are often an issue.


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Two Types Of Sailboat Motors

There are two configurations of motors on sailboats: inboard and outboard.  How effectively the motor moves its vessel through the water is dependent upon sea state, wind direction, and current.  A sailboat requires a certain amount of speed to maintain steerage. It is possible for a motorized sailboat, inboard or outboard, pounding into the wind against the current to lose its ability to hold course.

Outboard Motor

Outboard motors are attached to the transom or back of the sailboat using a special motor mount. The motor mount allows the outboard motor to be raised or lowered as necessary.

There are many different brands of outboard motors. They come in a range of various horsepower. By knowing a vessel's hull speed, or maximum speed the hull is designed to travel through the water, the appropriate horsepower can be chosen.

There are both diesel and gasoline outboard motors. They are available in two-stroke or four-stroke configuration.

The controls for the outboard motor may be at the motor itself or installed in the cockpit of the sailboat.

One major downside to an outboard motor is it's inability to keep the propeller fully in the water in certain conditions. Steep waves can cause an outboards propeller to rise up to the surface of the water and cavitate which means loss of power for the vessel.

A couple of friends of mine found themselves in a tight spot a few years back when the weather turned unexpectedly in their anchorage. In the close together 3-4 foot waves, their outboard couldn't get enough time in the water to propel the sailboat forward so they could pull their anchor. After a long seasick night, they were forced to cut their anchor free and seek safe harbor elsewhere.

Outboard motors do have their advantages on small daysailers. They do not create drag while sailing since they can be angled it of the water. It is easier to access or remove an outboard motor for maintenance. Replacing an outboard motor is less expensive than an inboard.

Inboard Motors

An inboard motor is a motor that is installed within the sailboat. It is not visible from the outside of the boat. Besides the sound, the only evidence of its presence is the water coming out of the exhaust at the stern, or back, of the boat. Inboard motors are generally water cooled and the wastewater exits the boat with the exhaust.

The propeller operates on a shaft which runs through the hull of the sailboat underneath and connects up to the motor. Controls for the motor are in the cockpit.

Inboard motors are larger than outboard motors of the same horsepower. This can create ballast and stability for the vessel. By having the propeller deeper in the water, cavitation is eliminated. However, since inboard motors are often installed prior to deck installation, cutting a portion of the deck away is often necessary when it comes time to replace them.

Motorized Catamarans

Cruising catamarans generally have two motors, one for each hull. These may be inboard or outboards. Some sailing catamarans only use a single outboard motor centrally located between the two hulls.

Wind Powered Sailboats

There are many world cruising sailboats that do not have a motor. The crew of these vessels have the skill and confidence necessary to maneuver their boat within anchorages and marinas.

Having the experience and knowledge necessary to navigate a sailboat solely by wind power is certainly something to be admired. Besides having a well designed boat in hull and sail configuration, engineless sailors also rely on a number of other tools to assist them in their motorless pursuits.

A skulling oar is a necessity for any motorless vessel.  By sweeping the oar behind the stern of the boat in a figure eight motion, forward momentum can be achieved as well as steerage. This is often how a sailboat with no motor may enter a slip or maneuver a tight anchorage in windless conditions.

Anchors are occasionally used as brakes when quick deceleration is necessary.

Small Motorless Sailboats

Training Sailboats

Training sailboats are small, simple boats which are used by sailing schools to teach new sailors the basics of sail handling. They have no motor and rely solely on wind power. These vessels are only used for a few hours at a time during a class. They have no onboard features such as a bathroom, cabin structure or electronics. They are steered by tiller.

Small Catamarans

There are a number of small sailing catamarans on the market that do not have motors. They are light, fast, and very reactive to the wind. Due to their double hull configuration, they are less prone to capsizing than monohulls.

A Sailboat With No Wind

Whether the motorless sailboat is a world cruiser or a small training sailboat, they are unable to travel if they find themselves in windless conditions.

Training and racing sailboats will stay in port on windless days. However, world cruisers may find themselves in the middle of the ocean with no wind. This can become a dangerous situation if it persists for too long.

When crossing an ocean, the crew will provision, or stock, the boat for the estimated duration of the crossing. If they find themselves becalmed for an extended period, food and water can become an issue.

While sailors have been known to need rescue due to extended calm conditions, this is far from the norm.  Most motorless sailors find that they rarely need to wait more than a few days for the wind to return.

Even the slightest breeze will move a proficient sailing vessel through the water, so the key to motorless sailing is patience. The journey is often just as enjoyable as the destination.

Do Sailboats Have Motors?
Beth York

Beth York

Beth lives on board her 1983 30ft S2 sailboat with her husband, 6 year-old son, and her two fur babies. She has been sailing and boating for most of her life. Beth has been blessed to experience cruising in the Great Lakes, the Bahamas, and in Alaska. She loves to travel and adores living on her tiny boat with her family.

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